Caine wasn't given time to answer that question, for Nathan blurted out, "She'll argue fierce."

Colin agreed. "I don't think Jade has come to terms with her future just yet."

"I'll persuade her," Caine announced. He leaned back in his chair and smiled at his butler. "You've done well, Sterns. I commend you."

"Of course I've done well," Sterns agreed. "I've seen to everything," he boasted.

"Oh?" Nathan asked. "Then tell us how Caine's going to convince Jade?"

In answer to that question, Sterns removed the empty pistol he'd concealed in his waistband. He dropped the weapon in the center of the table.

Everyone stared at the pistol until Sterns broke the silence again. He addressed his remarks to Richards.

"I believe I overheard you suggesting the pistol be aimed at Lady Jade's shoulders, or was I mistaken?"

The laughter was deafening. Jade stood at the door, the urn in her hands while she waited for the men to calm down.

She then poured Sterns his tea, put the urn on the sideboard, and returned to her seat. She noticed the pistol in the center of the table, but when she asked what it was doing there, she couldn't get a decent answer. The men had all started laughing again.

No one would explain. Jade guessed someone had told a bawdy jest and they were too embarrassed to share it with her.

Jade was ready to return to their plans. Caine surprised her by suggesting she return to her room.

"Why?" she asked. "I thought we were going . . ."

"You need to pack your things," Caine said.

Jade nodded. "You just want to tell more of your jests," she announced before she took her leave.

They were all smiling at her like happy thieves looking over their booty. She didn't know what to make

of that. The two guards were waiting for her in the foyer. They helped her carry the gowns Sterns had placed in Caine's wardrobe down to her chambers, then waited outside in the hall while she packed.

When she was finished with her task, she sat down by the window and began reading the book she'd only half finished two nights ago.

A short time later, there was a timid knock on the door. Jade closed her book and stood up just as Black Harry came into the room.

She was clearly astonished to see him. Her uncle was carrying a dozen long-stemmed white roses.

"These are for you, girl," he announced as he shoved the bouquet into her arms.

"Thank you, Uncle," she replied. "But what are you doing here? I thought you were going to wait for me at the cottage?"

Harry kissed her on the top of her head. "You look fit, Pagan," he muttered, completely ignoring her question. "Caine should be wearing my clothes this proud day."

"Why should Caine wear your clothes?" she asked, thoroughly confused now. She'd never seen her uncle act so nervous. He looked terribly worried, too.

"Because my shirt is the very color of your pretty gown," Harry explained.

"But what does . . ."

"I'll be telling it in my own good time," Harry blurted out. He hugged her close, squishing the flowers in the process, then stepped back. "Caine asked me if he could wed you, girl."

Harry took another precautionary step back after making his announcement, fully expecting an explosion. He got a dainty shrug instead. He noticed, though, that she was gripping the flowers tightly. "Watch for thorns, girl," he ordered.

"What did you tell him, Uncle?" she asked.

"He asked me real proper," Harry rushed out. "I could have had him down on one knee," he added with a nod. "He said he would, if it be needed to win my permission. He said it loud and clear right in front of me men, he did."

"But what did you tell him?" she asked again.

"I said yes."

He took another hasty step back after telling her that. She shrugged again, then walked over to the side of the bed and sat down. She put the bouquet of roses on the coverlet beside her.

"Why aren't you getting your temper up, girl?" Harry asked. He rubbed his jaw while he studied her. "Caine said you might be resistant to the notion. Ain't you angry?"

"No."

"Then what is it?" he demanded. He clasped his hands behind his back while he tried to guess her reasons. "You care for this man, don't you?"

"I do."

"Well then?" he prodded.

"I'm afraid, Uncle."

Her voice had been a bare whisper. Harry heard her but was so astonished by her admission, he didn't know what to say. "You're not," he stammered.

"I am."

He shook his head. "You ain't never been afraid of anything before." His voice was gruff with affection. He went to the bed, sat down beside her on top of the flowers, and awkwardly put his arm around her shoulders. "What's different now?"

Oh, yes, she wanted to shout, I've been afraid before . . . so many times, so many near mishaps, she'd lost count. She couldn't tell him, of course, for if she did, he'd think he'd failed her.

"It's different because I'll have to give up my work," she said instead.

"You know it's time, what with me retiring and all," he countered. "I've hid it from me men, girl, but my eyes, well, I ain't seeing as proper as I used to. They'll balk at following a blind pirate."

"Then who will they follow?" she asked.

"Nathan."

"Nathan?"

"He wants the Emerald. It belonged to his father, after all, and he has that little business to take care of. He'll make a fine pirate, girl. He's learned how to be real mean."

"Yes, he would make a good pirate," she admitted. "But Uncle Harry, I can't be the kind of woman

Caine wants."

"You are the woman he wants."

"I'll make so many mistakes," she whispered. She was on the verge of tears and was valiantly trying to keep her emotions controlled for Harry's sake. "I don't know how to do all the things a proper wife should know how to do. I'm no good with a needle, Harry."

"Aye, you're not," Harry admitted bleakly, remembering the time she tried to mend his sock and stitched it to her gown.

"I can't dance," she added. She looked so forlorn when she'd made that confession, Harry threw his arm around her shoulder and hugged her. "All the fine ladies of the ton know how to dance," she ended on a wail.

"You'll learn," Harry predicted. "If you want to learn."

"Oh, yes," she admitted in a rush. "I've always wanted ..."

Now she sounded wistful. Harry didn't know what was going on inside her mind. "What?" he asked. "What have you always wanted?"

"To belong."

The look on his face indicated he didn't understand what she was talking about.

"Are you wishing now I'd given you to Lady Briars? She would have taken you, girl. Why, she fought me something fierce for you, too. She's the reason we snuck off real quiet-like right after your father's funeral. I guessed she'd come back with the authorities and try and steal you away from me. I weren't your legal guardian, if you'll remember. Still, your papa wanted you to get away from England."

"You kept your word to my father," she interjected. "You were very honorable."

"But are you wishing now I wasn't so honorable back then?"

She shook her head. For the first time in all their days together, she was seeing Harry's vulnerability. "I cannot imagine my life without you, Harry. I would never wish that things had been different. You loved me as though I were your very own daughter."

Harry's arm dropped to his side. He looked dejected. She put her arm around his shoulders, trying now to comfort him. "Uncle, Lady Briars would have taught me all the rules, yes, but she couldn't have loved me the way you did. Besides, you taught me far more important rules. You taught me how to survive."

Harry was quick to perk up. "I did," he admitted with a grin. "You had the makings though. I've never seen such a natural thief or a born liar in all my days. I'm right proud of you, girl."

"Thank you, Uncle," she replied, blushing over his praise. Harry wasn't one to give idle compliments and she knew he spoke from his heart.

His expression soured, however, when he returned to her initial remark. "Yet you didn't think you belonged? You did say you wanted to belong, girl."

"I meant to be a proper wife," she lied. "That's what I meant by belonging now."

"You weren't speaking plain enough, girl," Harry announced. He looked relieved. "As for me, I've always wanted to be a grandpapa."

She started to blush. "I don't know how to have babies either," she wailed.

Harry had meant to lighten her mood. He realized he'd taken the wrong approach. "Hell, no woman knows how until the time comes, girl. Tell me this. Do you love Caine? He says you do."

She skirted his question. "What if he gets tired of me? He'll leave me then, Harry," she whispered.

"I know he will."

"He won't."

"He needs time to realize . . ." She paused in midsentence. "That's it, Harry. If the courtship is long enough, perhaps he'll realize he's made a mistake." She smiled then. "And during that time, in case he isn't making a mistake, I could try to learn all that would be required of me. Yes, Uncle, that's it. Caine's being very honorable now, trying to do the right thing . . ."

"Well, now, girl," Harry interrupted. "About this lengthy courtship plan . . ."

"Oh, Harry, that is the only answer," she interrupted. "I'll insist on a year. I'll wager he'll agree right off."

She was so pleased with her decision, she rushed out of the room. Harry adjusted his ill-fitting spectacles on the bridge of his nose, grabbed the bouquet and tucked it under his arm, and chased after her.

"Wait up," he bellowed.

"I must talk to Caine at once," she called over her shoulder. "I'm certain he's going to agree."

"I'm just as certain he ain't going to agree," Harry muttered. "Girl, hold fast. There's still a bit of the telling I have to do."

She'd already reached the foyer by the time Harry reached the landing above. "They're in the drawing room," her uncle shouted as he lumbered down the stairs.

Jade came to an abrupt stop when she opened the doors and saw the gathering. Harry caught up with

her and forced her hand on his arm. "We're doing this proper, girl," he whispered.

"Why are all these people here?" she asked. She looked at the group, recognized everyone but the short, partially bald-headed man standing by the French doors. He held a book in his hand and was in deep conversation with the Duke and Duchess of Williamshire.

Caine was standing by the hearth, talking to Lyon. He must have sensed her presence, for he suddenly turned in midsentence and looked at her.

His expression was solemn.

He knew at once by her puzzled expression she didn't understand what was going on. Caine braced himself for the fireworks he was sure were about to erupt, then walked over to face Jade.

"I ain't had time to finish explaining," Harry said.

"I can see you haven't," Caine interjected. "Jade, sweet, we're going . . ."

"I'll be telling it," Harry insisted.

He clasped Jade's hand flat on his arm so her nails wouldn't do injury, then said, "There ain't going to be a year's courtship, girl."

She continued to stare up at him with that innocent, angelic gaze. Harry tightened his hold on her hand. "But there's going to be a wedding."

She was beginning to understand, Harry guessed, when he noticed her eyes were turning the color of emeralds again.

She was trying to tug her hand away. Harry held tight. "When is this wedding?" she asked in a hoarse whisper.

Harry grimaced before answering. "Now."

She opened her mouth to shout her denial, but Caine moved closer, blocking her view from the audience. "We can do this the easy way, Jade, or the hard way. You call it."

She shut her mouth and glared up at him. Caine could see how frightened she was. She was in a near panic. She was actually shaking. "The easy way is for you to walk over to the minister and recite your vows."

"And the hard way?" Jade asked.

"I drag you over there by your hair," Caine told her. He made sure he looked as if he were up to that task, too. "Either way, I win. We are getting married."

"Caine . . ."

The fear in her voice tore at his heart. "Decide," he ordered, his voice hard. "Easy or hard?"

"I won't let you leave me," she whispered. "I won't! I'll leave you first."

"What are you stammering about, girl?" Harry asked.

"Jade? Which is it?" Caine demanded again, ignoring both her protest and Harry's interference.

Her shoulders sagged. "Easy."

He nodded.

"I'll be walking her over to the preacher man," Harry announced. "Nathan," he called out. "You can trail behind."

"In just a minute," Caine ordered.

While Jade stood there trembling with panic and Harry stood there giving the Duchess downright lecherous looks, Caine went over to the minister and spoke to him. When he was finished, he handed a piece of paper to the man.

All was finally ready. Colin stood up at his brother's side, supported by Caine's arm. Jade stood beside Caine. Harry had to support her.

Jade repeated her vows first, a breach from tradition Caine had insisted upon. He stared at his bride while he repeated each of his vows. He let her keep her gaze downcast until he reached the end of the litany. Then he tilted her chin up and forced her to look at him.

She looked so scared, so vulnerable. Her eyes glistened with tears. He loved her so much. He wanted to give her the world. But first he had to gain her trust in him.

The minister closed his book, opened the sheet of paper in his hand, and began to read. "Do you promise to stay with your wife for as long as you shall live? Do you give your word before God and these witnesses that you will never leave her until death do you part?"

Her eyes had widened during the minister's questions. She turned and saw the paper he was holding.



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